The passion play originated as far back as the Middle Ages and was used originally to preach the story of Christ. Over the years they also became a means of entertainment and tradition for many communities. By practice they were very rudimentary in their staging, costumes and props but took great care in the telling of their story from the birth of Christ through to his crucifixion and ascension. Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play” explores these community traditions and dramatizes the rehearsals and mounting of a passion play in three different places, in three very different time periods – England during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Oberammergau, Bavaria in 1934 and Spearfish, South Dakota from 1969 to present day. Ruhl’s script is truly a cycle play combining three stand-alone pieces that are all linked by a common theme and infused with the politics of their age. Ruhl plays on the cycle play concept further by creating parallels between the time periods. It really is a clever script with several moving scenes.
Despite this, when all was said and done, I found myself rather at a loss. Now whether this reaction was born from a) this play being too esoteric for my tastes, or b) because I missed the deeper meaning because of my sparse and holey knowledge of any and all things biblical (pun intended), I don’t know. I suspect a healthy dose from both column a) and b). Regardless, I left the theater with one predominant thought – I don’t get it. That’s not to say that it wasn’t well done or that the actor’s failed in their duties. Quite the opposite; it was very well done and the actors did a marvelous job. I just don’t get the point. Loath as I am to admit it, the appeal/purpose/message/etc of this play, slipped by my notice and I was not instilled with a burning curiosity to figure it out (pun once again intended).
What I do know is that the actors did a great job. The quartet of Christian Leffler as Pontius Pilate, Amanda Troop as Mary Magdalene, Dorie Barton as the Virgin Mary and Daniel Bess as Jesus were fantastic. They did an excellent job of shifting and differentiating their relationships and interactions with each other throughout the different time periods despite the similarity of the struggles that they faced. Leffler’s progression from a meek fish cleaner in England, to a foot soldier in Germany, to a Vietnam veteran in South Dakota (each of the three played the part of Pontius during the rehearsals of the passion play) was beautiful. The rest of the cast were all equally good, especially John Prosky as the Director and Shannon Holt as Queen Elizabeth/Hitler/Reagan.
From an historical stand point this play is teeming with rich references, and if I had several weeks at my disposal for dramaturgical research I’m sure this would have been fascinating. Both Oberammergau and Spearfish are actual locations that performed a passion play annually for many years. Hitler even visited and watched a performance in Oberammergau and praised the performance, which leads to the controversy of the anti-Semitic side of passion plays. Ruhl skims the surface of these issues, and others, just enough to pique interest, but never enough to truly intrigue or inform. This is an interesting and entertaining production, with several note-worthy performances, but lacking the necessary background knowledge, it fails to leave a lasting impression.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News